3e: The Love Potion

We’re all kind of on the page that ‘love potions’ in stories are probably bad, right?

an icon of a bottle with a heart in it

Those things that you could buy in 3e as a cheap, disposable magical item?

It’s one of those tropes from history that people used pretty freely up until like, even until 2013. Gravity Falls featured an episode about a character using a love potion, and then realising it was a foolish plan and going to undo it, only to find that, y’know, maybe it was an okay idea after all. And that was Gravity Falls, a cartoon I like. Shock! Horror! And that’s a bad trope and all!

Love potions show up in stories all over the place, and that makes them an iconic trope and I feel like they go through a sort of life cycle. In their oldest appearances — as I remember and are filtered through the mind of a boy like me — the love potion is a solution to a problem. Then, as things get a little more protestant, a little more puritanical, love potions tend to be set up in the first part of the story, and then developed and dismissed in the second part. Love potions are a thing you think will solve your problems, then you find they don’t.

There are a lot of reasons they can fail. They can fail because you find out that the person you love-potioned, you don’t actually want them in love with you. They can fail because you find out that the potion doesn’t make them love you the way that you imagined. They can fail just because love potions aren’t real but now you have to consider what it meant that you tried. They can fail because they have to destroy the way the person you were interested in order to work, somehow. And of course sometimes they can fail because you mess up their application like spilling it on a bird or something.

Lots of different ways that ‘the love potion’ is a setup that gets subverted. In fact, so much so that, especially in reset-heavy pulp media like sitcoms and weekly dramas, love potions fit the mould really conveniently. The subversion means that the characters undo the love potion by the end, and that’s that. It’s a tidy little plot loop, and the form it’s poured into handles it just fine. Makes sense.

Why can ya buy ’em?

an icon of a potion bottle pulling a sad face

Look, 3rd edition was a hungry beast. It needed content, content, content and a lot of what it needed never made sense to me. I did not think I needed as many versions of ‘human, but ugly and weird’ as the game books provided me. I never needed the flying mount rules, or the keep rules. They were nice, ostensibly but they weren’t useful, because they weren’t focused on the game played by players and instead on a sort of systemitising the world. This is a reasonable thing for a system to do when it wants to do it, I’m not criticising them for the choice, but that the choice put the way D&D 3E was built at odds with the way I expected to play it.

You’d see this throughout supplements, in Dragon Magazines and soft cover splatbooks; sometimes there was a cool idea that the game could do and that cool idea ran headlong into the system’s design. A gladiatorial campaign? Cool idea, here are maps and opponents. Oh, the system isn’t designed to make one-on-one fights very interesting for the uninvolved parties and dying represents an immense debt? Hm, sounds like the real thing this system needs is loans and banking. Oh wait, but if you’re doing gladiatorial fighs, how do you get loot from enemies? You can’t loot the bodies, that belongs to their stable! There’s got to be a payment system!

And thus we return to the love potion. The love potion was in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (and SRD, even now!) because it’s an obvious trope, the item works in a simple, easily explained way, and it fills some inches in the book that needs so, so many inches filled. The item is built by a formula, it works to a rule and it kind of rests on a leyline of things D&D 3e doesn’t do very well.

First of all, the item gives a save. Well it has to right, because otherwise it’d be overpowered. But saving throws aren’t like, narratively coherent things. They’re there to defend you from attacks, but ostensibly, they’re there to represent how well your body resists things changing it (which was why you can resist healing spells and, in some cases, are called upon to do so, which is, yes, dumb). Don’t worry, though, the DC is really low: Only a DC 14. Which means an ordinary human with nothing heroic going on has about a 30% chance to ignore it and it lasts for 1d3 hours.

Thus we position the elixir of love perfectly badly. It’s a magic item that an adventurer can buy in bulk, that they never would care about, that represents life-deforming mind control, but not for very long and not very well. It promises what a love potion in a story is, but delivers instead a very crap charm spell, which is the closest thing it can approximate to love because the game system wants to try and systemitise love without dealing with how incredibly overpowered love is. There’s no category of ‘minor effect’ or ‘story beat’ for magical items, which need to be built to instead, operate the way adventurers expect adventurers to work.

an icon of a love letter

The Elixir of Love doesn’t actually represent anything particularly heinous. Nothing out of type. It’s a love potion, but because it sucks it’s not that bad, and nobody would use it, except because it sucks, and that it sucks isn’t because of the story needs but because of the way the mechanics of the system handle items. It’s the same wonky stuff that permeates 3e. Systems aren’t immune to this. My favourite system isn’t immune to this kind of thing!

Still pretty funny way to waste a year’s wages for a normal person.